5 Legendary Warrior-Women of Asia

Japanese samurai swords
A katana, top, and other Japanese swords. Morten Falch / Sortland via Getty Images

Throughout history, the field of war has been dominated by men. Nonetheless, in the face of extraordinary challenges, certain brave women have made their mark in battle. Here are five legendary women warriors of ancient times from across Asia.

Queen Vishpala (c. 7000 BCE)

Queen Vishpala's name and deeds come down to us via the Rigveda, an ancient Indian religious text. Vishpala was probably an actual historical figure, but that is extremely difficult to prove 9,000 years later.

According to the Rigveda, Vishpala was an ally of the Ashvins, the twin horsemen-gods. The legend states that the queen lost her leg during a battle, and was given a prosthetic leg of iron so that she could return to the fight. Incidentally, this is the first known mention of someone being outfitted with a prosthetic limb, as well.

Queen Sammuramat (reigned c. 811-792 BCE)

Sammuramat was a legendary queen of Assyria, famed for her tactical military skills, nerve, and cunning.

Her first husband, a royal advisor named Menos, sent for her in the midst of a battle one day. Upon arrival at the battlefield, Sammuramat won the fight by directing a flanking attack against the enemy. The king, Ninus, was so impressed that he stole her from her husband, who committed suicide.

Queen Sammuramat asked for permission to rule the kingdom for just one day. Ninus foolishly agreed, and Sammuramat was crowned. She immediately had him executed and ruled on her own for another 42 years. During that time, she expanded the Assyrian Empire vastly through military conquest.

Queen Zenobia (reigned c. 240-274 CE)

"Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra" Oil painting by Herbert Schmalz, 1888
"Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra" Oil painting by Herbert Schmalz, 1888. No known restrictions due to age

Zenobia was a Queen of the Palmyrene Empire, in what is now Syria, during the third century CE. She was able to seize power and rule as Empress upon the death of her husband, Septimius Odaenathus.

Zenobia conquered Egypt in 269 and had the Roman prefect of Egypt beheaded after he attempted to retake the country. For five years she ruled this expanded Palmyrene Empire until she was defeated in turn and taken captive by the Roman General Aurelian.

Carried back to Rome in bondage, Zenobia so impressed her captors that they freed her. This remarkable woman made a new life for herself in Rome, where she became a prominent socialite and matron.

Hua Mulan (c. 4th-5th century CE)

Scholarly debate has raged for centuries about the existence of Hua Mulan; the only source of her story is a poem, famous in China, called "The Ballad of Mulan."

According to the poem, Mulan's elderly father was called up to serve in the Imperial Army (during the Sui Dynasty). The father was too sick to report for duty, so Mulan dressed up as a man and went instead.

She showed such exceptional bravery in battle that the emperor himself offered her a government post when her army service was finished. A country girl at heart, though, Mulan turned down the job offer to rejoin her family.

The poem ends with some of her former comrades-at-arms coming to her home to visit, and finding out to their surprise that their "war buddy" is a woman.

Tomoe Gozen (c. 1157-1247)

Actress portrays Tomoe Gozen, the 12th century female samurai
Actress portrays Tomoe Gozen, the 12th century female samurai. No known owner: Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

The famously beautiful samurai warrior Tomoe fought in Japan's Genpei War (1180-1185 CE). She was known throughout Japan for her skills with the sword and the bow. Her wild horse-breaking skills were also legendary.

The lady samurai fought alongside her husband Yoshinaka in the Genpei War, playing a pivotal role in the capture of Kyoto city. However, Yoshinaka's force soon fell to that of his cousin and rival, Yoshimori. It's unknown what happened to Tomoe after Yoshimori took Kyoto.

One story has it that she was captured, and ended up marrying Yoshimori. According to this version, after the warlord's death many years later, Tomoe became a nun.

A more romantic story says that she fled the field of battle clutching an enemy's head, and was never seen again.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "5 Legendary Warrior-Women of Asia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/legendary-warrior-women-of-asia-195819. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). 5 Legendary Warrior-Women of Asia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/legendary-warrior-women-of-asia-195819 Szczepanski, Kallie. "5 Legendary Warrior-Women of Asia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/legendary-warrior-women-of-asia-195819 (accessed June 5, 2023).